Recently Travel Weekly voted the Riviera Maya the Best Destination in Mexico. This post is designed to give you a glimpse into the Riviera Maya, its beauty, its diversity, and why out of thousands of vacation destinations around the world, it should be at the top of your bucket list.
Where is the Riviera Maya
The Riviera Maya in Mexico runs along the Caribbean coastline for over 100 km south of Cancun to south of Tulum. Although it was first occupied by pre Mayan cultures in 3000 BC, it was only sparsely populated until the late 20th century when it quickly became Mexico's #1 vacation getaway. Now it welcomes over 25 million visitors a year from around the globe.
So how do you get there? Cancun International Airport in 2018 had over 25 million passengers. Located only 45 to 75 minutes from the main centers it is the gateway to the Riviera Maya. First opened in 1974 it regularly undergoes modification and expansion and currently has 4 terminals and is serviced by over 50 airlines going direct to over 100 cities the world over.
Riviera Maya History & Development
In the 10th century Mayan settlements were established at Coba, Xcaret, Xel-Ha and Tulum. In 1502 Spaniards from Christopher Columbus's last expedition first made contact with the local inhabitants when they encountered native fishing boats off the coast. In 1511 another Spanish ship got stranded in the area and was captured by the local natives, who spared only 2 of the survivors, who were integrated into the Mayan society.
Spanish explorers continued to arrive and following orders from King Carlos V tried to conquer the Yucatan Peninsula. In the 1540's the Spanish founded the cities of Merida and Campeche. Their coastal settlements came under attack from pirates during the 16th and 17th centuries but the Spanish persisted since the Yucatan Peninsula offered the closest ports to the Caribbean islands.
In the early 1970's parts of the coast began to develop as tourist destinations: Cancun, Isla Mujeres & Cozumel. In the 1980's a building boom transformed Cancun into a major tourist resort following the creation, by the Mexican Government, of a master development plan. While Cancun and Playa Del Carmen developed into bustling tourist cities, development along the southern section has a less urban feel, interspersed with areas of little development with small pueblos and the natural beauty of the Caribbean coastline on one side and the tropical jungle on the other.
So Why Is The Mayan Riviera So Popular?
One of the main reasons that the Riviera Maya has become Mexico’s #1 vacation destination is because it can appeal to broad sets of tourists with very diverse vacation interests. From young party goers at all-inclusive resorts who come for continuous on demand food and drinks 24/7, organized fun and entertainment, to those looking for family friendly vacation rentals. Add in adventurous millennials wanting to push the boundaries of extreme, nature lovers and bird watchers, golfers, foodies and festival goers, those looking to immerse themselves in culture and history, those looking for a romantic getaway, or a relaxing and restorative vacation, and those wanting a home away from home – the Riviera Maya easily appeals to them all. Of course it goes without saying that nearly everyone is attracted here by the white sand beaches, turquoise tinted Caribbean ocean, fresh water cenotes, and fabulous sunny hot weather all located next to a tropical jungle setting.
Additional benefits that help make it one of the worlds go to destinations includes the infrastructure that has been developed by the Mexican Government including its highway and road network allowing easy travel up and down the coastline, modern facilities, water treatment, and its visitor friendly atmosphere.
With over 100 km’s of coastline broken up by numerous coves and bays the Riviera Maya has kilometers and kilometers of white sand beaches, interspersed with wild, largely unexplored rocky outcrops that separate the numerous bays and coves.
From Playa Del Carmen, Akumal, and down to Tulum there are beaches ranging from the popular spots full of amenities to unique and off the beaten track gems. All framed between wild tropical jungle on the one side, and warm Caribbean ocean on the other.
Whether you want to relax in unspoilt solitude, swim and snorkel with fish, sea turtles, sting rays, whale sharks and dolphins, or participate in fun beach activities there’s plenty of space and opportunity for all.
Cenotes are a natural phenomenon and the Riviera Maya has the majority of the worlds cenotes. A Cenote is a natural sinkhole created where a cave ceiling has collapsed. These caves were formed by the highly porous coral limestone gradually dissolving.
Cenotes were the only source of water in the jungle for the Mayan civilization and are considered sacred by the Mayan people. There are reputedly over 6000 different cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico alone.
As well as being a great place to swim in the warm fresh water, cenotes attract cave divers who explore the extensive labyrinth of the caves, some which have been explored for 340 km or more!
In 2019 Scuba Diving Magazine voted the Riviera Maya the #1 place to scuba dive in the world. Cenotes are a perfect place to either explore the underground caverns, or to relax after a day in the hot sun for a restorative late afternoon swim to cap off the end to a perfect day.
With vast tracks of tropical jungle surrounding the Caribbean ocean there are numerous opportunities for unique, and once in a lifetime wildlife adventures.
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere an area of 5,280 km2 protected by the Mexican Government prevents development by humankind. It is home to 103 species of mammals and 345 species of birds, not to mention more than 1,400 species of plants. Among the wildlife here are pumas, ocelots and jaguars, as well as tapirs, spider and howler monkeys, white-tailed deer and white-cheeked wild boars.
Bird-watchers will enjoy a boat trip through the wetlands, in the hopes of viewing aquatic birds such as white ibises, roseate spoonbills, the rare jabiru stork, wood storks, flamingos, egrets, or one of the park's 15 species of heron.
You can explore the area hiking, by Jeep transportation or by boat to take in the full breadth of the reserve’s natural wonders.
In addition to the Sian Ka’an biosphere there are numerous fun family activities or more extreme adventures that you can undertake to have a wildlife experience to remember. From Monkey Santuaries, to eco-zoo’s designed to take care for rescued animals while allowing you to hold, touch and feel a variety of local wild animals, to ocean adventures from snorkeling in Akumal Bay with sea turtles, sting rays and numerous fish inside a natural reef, to swimming with dolphins or whale sharks.
A Vacation Getaway for Couples
Awakening to the sound of the migratory birds in the jungle outside your window, as the sun rises over the Caribbean ocean, you smell the coffee brewing. Your day starts with the morning sun warming you up as you sit on the balcony with the breakfast of tropical fresh fruits you prepared in your well equipped kitchen.
Mid morning you and your partner relax poolside with a good book, spotting coati, capybara and spider monkeys as they move through the jungle. Then a visit to a local white sand Caribbean beach where you snorkel together with sea turtles, sting rays, and schools of tropical fish, inside a protected reef. Just enough exercise to create an appetite for lunch and a cocktail at a beachside restaurant.
After a snooze on the beach under the hot sun you decide to stop off at a local cenote to take a cooling dip. Snorkeling through the open air limestone caverns with their amazing rock formations and numerous fish.
Returning home before a romantic dinner at the local Italian restaurant, or a special meal prepared by your partner, you finish the evening by watching the beautiful sun setting from the rooftop jacuzzi tub as you sip a cool glass of wine.
Tomorrow, same again or add in a visit to the Mayan Ruins, a few water activities, a hike through the jungle, a different beach or cenote, a Mayan dinner, or order in pizza and a romantic Netflix movie?
Where better to go to celebrate that special occasion, honeymoon, or anniversary getaway?
Historical Mayan Ruins and Culture
The Riviera Maya contains some of the best preserved Mayan artifacts, buildings and cities from a civilization that dated back to 3000 BC. So where are the Mayan Ruins? In the southern part of the Riviera Maya is the fortified seaport of Tulum, sitting 12m high on cliffs above the Caribbean ocean and a little further inland is largely unexplored Coba. Further north is the highly popular Chichen Itza. If crowds of tourists aren't your scene then visit one of the lesser known and off the beaten track temples such as that at Muyil where you can immerse yourself in understanding and exploring the Mayan culture.
Restaurants, Food & Drinks
The Riviera Maya has a diverse selection of restaurants for all tastes. These include everything from local taco stands, to 5 star international restaurants and everything in between. Playa Del Carmen has every type of cuisine you could imagine and a plethora of restaurants to choose from. Tulum at the southern extreme has a smaller but very good selection of restaurants in the Centro area, and some exquisite places such as La Zebra (great for breakfast on the beach!). In the middle is Akumal that has a very good selection of restaurants for the size of the community. If you want Italian food the go to is La Taverna, for breakfast try the Turtle Bay Cafe, reasonably priced Mexican food on the beach then try Lol-Ha. In between these communities there are numerous local bars, restaurants and taco stands for you to try out.
As well there are a growing number of events for the foodies amongst us. You can go for a Mayan dinner and show, attend the Tulum Food and Wine Festival, or go for a 5 course tasting meal showcasing flavours and techniques from the Mayan empire to the present day.
With a selection of both local stores in small pueblos, and access to larger supermarkets there is a vast array of tropical fruits, vegetables, and local seafood available, as well as all the supplies and specialty food items you might need. Interested in trying some of the numerous brands of tequila or mezcal, a local cocktail or the large variety of South American wines that are readily available.
Wellness, Spa and Health
If taking a relaxing massage, facial, manicure, pedicure, or a Mayan clay body treatment is more your pace then the Riviera Maya will not disappoint. Perhaps add in a few yoga sessions during your stay, or a zumba class.
You can select from several spa’s and wellness retreats or choose to do it beachside.
Adventure, Theme, and Water Parks
If you’re looking for outdoor adventures then visiting one of the adventure, theme, or water parks will be on your list of things to do during your stay. Several such parks such as Xplor, Xcaret, and Aktun-Chen exist along the Riviera Maya with activities including
- Snorkeling in underground rivers
- Scuba diving
- Driving ATV’s and amphibious vehicles through the jungle
Want to enjoy a festival or 2 while you’re visiting and soak up some local culture at the same time? There are several to choose from including a beachside movie festival, food and wine festivals, tequila and mezcal tastings, Cinco de Mayo, Music & Jazz festivals, Mexican independence day, the sea turtle festival, and of course the Day of the Dead.
Of course it goes without saying that with the hundreds of km’s of coastline and open water Caribbean ocean there are countless opportunities to get on or in the water. Whether that’s an offshore fishing charter for Tuna, Billfish, Wahoo & Dorado, Sailfish, White & Blue Marlin, Mahi Mahi, sailing on a luxury catamaran or hiring a local and his Panga boat to tour around or find a snorkeling or swimming hole. Alternatively hook up with a local dive shop and take a scuba diving excursion.
If you’re more into self-propelled water craft, then most of the local beaches have kayaks or paddle boards to rent for some exercise and fun on the warm Caribbean Sea.
Shopping and Local Services
If you want to go shopping for souvenirs and gifts to bring back with you then there’s Playa Del Carmen at one end or Tulum to the south. Both have markets and stalls where you can haggle out a deal. My personal preference is Tulum as it’s a little less touristy and more bohemian. You'll find lots of local craft items ranging from hand sculpted and painted ceramics, hand woven hammocks, rugs, and blankets.
However, if its high end fashion that you’re looking for then 5th Avenue Playa Del Carmen is where you'll find it.
Dotted in between Playa Del Carmen and Tulum you’ll find smaller Pueblo’s that range from having a few basic stores to small centres that will cater to all of your needs.
Best Vacation Destination for Families
The Riviera Maya is the best vacation destination for families as it has great weather, many different activities that can easily meet a families needs (and even please the teenagers amongst us) and offers great value for money. Its also a very safe place, especially out of the large centres and south of Playa Del Carmen and is in close proximity to numerous attractions and amenities.
For those who want beaches the Riviera Maya’s Caribbean beaches are among the best in the world with many kid friendly options. The warm Caribbean water is perfect for the little ones, while if you want some wave action you can find that too.
If you’d like to take a swim and cool off in a cenote you can find quiet relaxing cenotes where you can read a book and eat lunch and wade in the water safely with your toddlers, or you can find a cenote for the extreme cliff jumpers and divers among you.
If water activities are on your list of things to do, whether its sedate snorkeling in a calm bay or lagoon, or taking a swim with a turtle, sting ray, whale shark, or dolphin, or going on a scuba diving excursion, the Mexican Riviera has it all.
Interested in family friendly restaurants and eating options there’s plenty of those, from local Mexican favorites to those catering to your international tastes. If you want to prepare a few breakfasts or lunches you have plenty of good quality and very reasonable supermarket options from Playa Del Carmen down to Tulum.
Adults interested in the Mayan Ruins, but the teenagers aren’t keen – no problem, you can leave them at the beach while you explore the Ruins at Tulum that overlook the beach and the Caribbean ocean.
If you want some adventure or excitement there are several adventure and theme parks. Whether its zipling, caving, ATV’s, a wild animal encounter, or a water park you can spend an active and fun-filled day out together.
Where better to go for an exotic family fun filled vacation?
Best Time of Year to Visit the Riviera Maya, Mexico
There really isn’t a bad time to visit the Riviera Maya. While in the summer months there is more rain and there can be occasional storms, for most days the rain only lasts for a short period of time before the clouds move on and the sun shines again. A lot of the rain comes late afternoon so it also doesn’t interrupt the day too much. Summer has the hotter temperatures and is a little more humid too.
As a result summer is the low season which has the advantage that it's less crowded and is a cheaper time to travel allowing you an inexpensive vacation. In the summer there is often a higher percentage of European travelers taking advantage of their long summer holidays.
Winter is the season which receives a higher number of North American tourists and is considered high season. It coincides with the harsh North American winters and provides an extreme contrast to the weather in the Riviera Maya where it is often 25-30 C every day. Winter is also the dryer season too.
Easter is popular with local Mexican and Latin American holiday makers.
Future BLOG articles will expand on each of these areas, but in the meantime if you have questions or want information on a specific activity don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, @oceanbreezeakumal, or call me at +1 250 538 8159.
If you found this post interesting we'd appreciate getting a like or share below. If you don't want to miss future posts enter your email in the subscription box below.